DirectorAlan J. Pakula
Release Date(s)1974 (February 9, 2021)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures (Criterion – Spine #1064)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A
The Parallax View draws us in immediately. A U.S. Senator campaigning for president gets shot amid throngs of people in the observation tower of the Seattle Space Needle. His presumed assassin is immediately pursued and falls to his death during the chase.
A few years later, reporter Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss) visits a friend, fellow reporter Joe Frady (Warren Beatty), with a highly unsettling story. Six of the people present when the senator was assassinated have died and Lee is convinced that she is next. Joe tries to calm her fears, dismissing them as paranoia. But Lee turns up dead shortly thereafter. Joe realizes there is a big story to be uncovered and pleads with his editor (Hume Cronyn) to let him pursue it.
Joe’s investigation traces a chain of conspiracy back to a Los Angeles firm called the Parallax Corporation. Its business seems to be identifying people with the potential to become assassins. The company places ads in magazines to attract loners, those lacking self-esteem and resentful of authority, and those capable of committing murder. Prospective recruits are given a series of psychological tests and, if accepted, are hired out to clients. The company will do business with any entity—individual, organization, government. Money talks. Frady disguises his identity and background and gets himself accepted into Parallax in order to amass information for what he hopes will be a Pulitzer Prize-winning expose.
Director Alan J. Pakula and screenwriters David Giler and Lorenzo Semple, Jr. (and an uncredited Robert Towne) draw upon conspiracy theories that arose after the Kennedy assassination. How could a single gunman, who was not a great marksman when he was in the Marines, have fired the shots that killed the President in a moving car? The later assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. fed conspiracy theories. The Watergate hearings were being held while The Parallax View was in production, so the time was ripe for a fictional “What if…?” scenario incorporating the conspiracy theorists’ speculations.
The film is a suspenseful political thriller that takes us through a reporter’s methods—some ethical, others not—to ferret out a story. Frady doesn’t seem to observe normal hours, take orders from his editor seriously, or pay attention to danger. This makes for an exciting film but is far from a real reporter’s methods, which typically involve lots of research, including phone calls and interviews, none of which are particularly cinematic. Pakula adds a car chase and a barroom fight to pep up the action, but these scenes feel out of place. The film is at its best when Frady follows leads while keeping his reporter status clandestine.
The opening assassination evokes both the JFK assassination and the Warren Report, which declared that only Lee Harvey Oswald was responsible for the murder. This connects actual events to the fictional story to follow, suggesting that the film may not be too far fetched.
Beatty carries the picture and plays the investigative journalist more as a private eye than a reporter. His Frady latches onto a story after its germ has been planted by another reporter. When she dies suddenly, he begins poking around. Unorthodox, insubordinate, and stretching ethical bounds, he acts alone to chase a story that may or may not be there. Working on instinct and adrenaline, he forges ahead.
The Criterion Collection Blu-ray release of the film, featuring 1080p resolution from a new, restored 4K digital transfer, is presented in the widescreen format of 2.39:1. The picture is quite sharp, with nicely saturated hues. There are no visible imperfections. The color palette ranges from the bright reds of the Fourth of July marching band uniforms in the opening parade sequence and a multi-colored totem pole to darker tones in Frady’s room to the bright, cold tones of Parallax’s ultra-modern headquarters. Details are crisp and nicely delineated, such as hair, patterns on clothing, and odds and ends in the newspaper’s editor’s small, cluttered office. Cinematographer Gordon Willis uses the anamorphic lens for close-ups by placing the actor on the left or right side of the frame with empty space opposite. Atop the Space Needle, we see events inside viewed from the outside, and events outside seen from the inside. This allows the camera to view the senator and guests with a clear view of Seattle in the background. The shooting is seen through glass as the senator is speaking.
The soundtrack is English 1.0 LPCM. Optional English SDH subtitles are available. The audio is crisp and dialogue is clear throughout. In a sequence at the Los Angeles Convention Center, there’s an echo because there are only a few actors in the large expanse. Gunshots and an explosion are sweetened for dramatic effect. In a scene patterned on a Western barroom brawl, we hear furniture breaking, a light fixture being destroyed, glass smashing, and fists hitting bodies. The Space Needle scene features effective sound mixing, with dialogue dominant against ambient noise and background extras chatting over cocktails. A lengthy sequence, in which Frady follows a man onto a plane where he knows a bomb is hidden, is played without a single bit of dialogue. Subjective views build suspense as Frady wants to alert the crew without calling attention to himself.
Bonus materials include a new optional introduction by filmmaker Alex Cox; two interviews with Alan J. Pakula; a featurette on cinematographer Gordon Willis; an interview with Jon Boorstin, an assistant to Pakula on the film; and a booklet containing a critical essay.
Alex Cox on The Parallax View – Cox defines the term “conspiracy” and discuses how unlikely it is for Lee Harvey Oswald to have been the lone gunman of the JFK assassination. The Zipruder film shows that Kennedy was killed by an expert marksman. Controversy arose as to who was responsible. Was it Castro? The Mafia? The CIA? The film Executive Action from 1973 ends with a list of 18 witnesses to the Kennedy assassination who died. The Parallax View and The Conversation, both about conspiracy, were made in 1974. The parade that opens the film suggests Kennedy’s motorcade in Dallas. The death of the journalist played by Paula Prentiss was based on the death of Dorothy Kilgallen, the only journalist who interviewed Jack Ruby. She died under suspicious circumstances before going public with her findings. According to Cox, “The world that Pakula hypothesized in 1974 is the world we’re living in now.”
Alan J. Pakula Interview, 1974 – Recorded on November 20, 1974 as part of the American Film Institute’s Harold Lloyd Master Seminar series, the conversation features Pakula discussing his approach to directing The Parallax View.
Alan J. Pakula Interview, 1995 – Pakula explains the film as being Kafkaesque and involving a “whole other kind of filmmaking” since it was shot during a screenwriters’ strike. Because Warren Beatty had a pay-or-play deal, filming started before the screenplay was complete. Though made under “hair-raising conditions, The Parallax View is a film Pakula is pleased that he directed.
Gordon Willis: Figures in Space – In this interview from 2004, cinematographer Gordon Willis discusses his work on The Parallax View. Willis shot 16 films between 1970 and 1977, from cult movies like Hal Ashby’s The Landlord to Best Picture Oscar winners The Godfather, The Godfather: Part II, and Annie Hall. Regarded as a New York outsider with a radical visual style, Willis received just two Academy Award nominations during his career, but in 2010 he received an honorary Oscar “for unsurpassed mastery of light, color, and motion.” Willis was interested in the conspiratorial kind of movie and thought The Parallax View would be fun to do. His favorite part of the film is the Space Needle sequence. “Pumping a lot of light on people doesn’t feel quite right to me.” The hand-held camera was used when actors were in motion. Willis captured America’s paranoia in three Pakula films: Klute, The Parallax View, and All the President’s Men. His job was to take Pakula’s ideas and transfer them to the practical visual appearance of the film. Willis calls giving an editor too many options “dump truck directing.” For different reasons, the barroom fight and the Los Angeles Convention Center scenes were difficult. Seeing the film today, Willis believes it holds up well.
Pulling Focus: Constructing The Parallax View – Jon Boorstin was hired as an intern on The Parallax View and was paid to watch and learn. He became friendly with Gordon Willis, who had the ability to create visual analogies for Alan J. Pakula’s vision. A great deal of re-writing was going on during production. New script pages would arrive every day. “Pakula thrives on chaos.” The film explained the world of dark conspiracy theories. Boorstin based the Parallax test seen in the film on the Minnesota Multiphase Personality Inventory, trying to figure how to create a test you can’t fake. In a 3 1/2-minute sequence, title cards and images go from benign to angry to vengeful. This is the final test for the Parallax Corporation to determine whether the candidate has the makings of a killer for hire.
Booklet – The 24-page insert booklet contains a list of cast and credits, a critical essay by Nathan Heller, an interview with Alan J. Pakula by Andrew C. Bobrow, and restoration information.
The Parallax View offers the grim message that dark forces are at play to undermine and destroy what is good in society. For a price, a correctly predisposed person will commit murder and anyone can be targeted. Well meaning, determined, and dedicated, Frady is up against something monstrous and never realizes how he figures in a covert plot.
- Dennis Seuling